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Exploring the impact of the sounds of war

Exploring the impact of the sounds of war

Image: WWI Trench—Stock image Image courtesy: ©

Image: WWI Trench—Stock image Image courtesy: ©
When a lone bugler stands this Anzac Day to play the simplest of brass instruments large crowds will stand and pause to listen thoughtfully and remember.

In our contemporary world the sound of the Last Post is transporting and powerful—the sounds of the bugle and the silence that follow have different meanings for us all.

While these are two easily recognisable sounds, a new research project looking more deeply at the sounds of war is helping to show how the auditory sense has shaped experience and memory of war.

Professor Joy Damousi, an ARC Laureate Fellow and Professor of History in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at The University of Melbourne, is the Chief Investigator on the research project ‘Hells Sounds’.

The project, funded through the 2014 ARC Discovery Projects scheme round (DP140101681), will re-conceptualise the history of the two world wars through the auditory landscape created by inflicting violence on the senses.  

Professor Damousi is drawing on diaries, memoirs and contemporary accounts, to explore how sounds of the battlefield and the home-front during the First and Second World Wars have shaped the experience and memory of these events by civilians and combatants.

“An obvious and striking example is the sirens of both World War I and World War II, particularly the London blitz and what people remember of the sirens—it really chilled people in terms of their whole memory of war,” Professor Damousi said.

Another element of Professor Damousi’s project is looking at the emotions and the emotional experience of war through those sounds. Fear and anxiety are the obvious ones; however Professor Damousi notes the varying landscape of sound, especially in the battlefield.

“One of the areas I want to explore is the sound of nature and what that invoked in soldiers. For example, bird song and the sound of nature on the battlefield.

“What l’m looking at is how that tempers the violence; it inspires a response that is quite profound—when there is death around and nature can survive through it.”

Silence is another powerful memory and emotion of war.

“Silence on the battlefield is literally the calm before the storm,” Professor Damousi said.

“Soldiers were writing how that was more terrifying than listening to bombs and artillery. They knew exactly where they stood when there was gunfire, but when there was silence there’s extraordinary fear and heightened anxiety about what is coming next.”

Silence also signified the end of the war.

“People write about the silence so passionately and so profoundly—you can just feel their relief, they are just so happy the war is over.”

A third element of the ‘Hells Sounds’ project is how the sounds of war dictated behaviour.

“That theme is very strong on the home-front,” Professor Damousi explains.

“When the Zeppelin bombs London the response to that is really driven by people listening to the sound of the Zeppelin, they can see it, but it’s when they hear it that they begin to respond in particular ways, and that defines their whole experience.”

Through her research project Professor Damousi is trying to merge military history with cultural history to look at a broader spectrum of wartime experience and capture different experiences of war and its legacy.

Even those who were documenting the war used words associated with sound to explain their stories or write their poems. Wilfred Owen MC, an English poet and soldier, was one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poem Anthem for Doomed Youth takes the reader on an emotive auditory journey of war.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.  
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle  
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;  
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;  
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

“They write about their whole experience through this inescapable sound,” Professor Damousi said.

“It was 24–7, they could not escape it and the poets encapsulate this.

“World War I introduced new technology into warfare…that is an industrial war. This created new sounds. It wasn’t just loud, it was pervasive and it was distinctly different to anything they had heard before.”

Professor Damousi believes research in this area is vitally important, particularly in the context of how the body and senses are affected by these moments of extreme violence.

“Sound is so embedded in our memories; that’s what people retain, the auditory impact, even in our contemporary digital world that is saturated with images.

“We need to look at our responses and how medicine has or has not caught up with those sorts of connections (between sound and emotional impact).

“We need to put at the centre and the heart of historical studies the importance of looking at the auditory experiences. We can’t really write about ourselves, in the present or the past, without looking at issues around sound and listening.

“War does not leave anyone untouched—we need to open up the landscape of the battlefield above and beyond what we know.”

For more information about this research project, please contact Professor Joy Damousi



Image: WWI Trench—Stock image
Image courtesy: ©

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